In Japan, you must never, ever, I mean ever, pass a piece of food directly from your chopsticks to someone else's chopsticks. To do so is about on par with throwing up into your rice bowl. Maybe worse.
And this is so very awful because when a person dies in Japan and is cremated, the relatives pair up and use special, long chopsticks to transfer bone pieces into the urn. This process is called "hashi watashi," which means "chopstick passing".
So to do a chopstick handoff at the dinner table is basically to fling open the doors of the underworld and invite every sort of nameless ghoulish horror to invade your household.
Try it sometime when dining with Japanese people, and see the reaction you get!
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I've been to the crematorium so often lately that even the guys who work there are looking at me askance. Like, you know, maybe I'm doing something to speed along people's passage to the Great Beyond or something.
But several times recently they've also asked me how they should handle the urn packing process. They want to know if it's okay to do "hashi watashi" in pairs, or should they have each person do it on his own.
At first I was confused about why they were asking. But then I learned that in some "Christian" cremations they don't do "hashi watashi" in pairs.
Now, I have given thought to the theological question of cremation versus interment of the body. But since cremation is mandatory under Japanese law, I figure Ezekiel gives sufficient reason not to worry that dry bones are going to present some sort of major obstacle to God's resurrection plans.
But why on earth would some Christian clergymen object to people pairing up to move bone fragments?
It turns out that "hashi watashi" can also mean "bridge crossing" ("chopsticks" and "bridge" are both "hashi," albeit with different kanji).
So, the idea is that the mourners are helping their loved one to cross over the river which, in Buddhist mythology, separates this world from the next (a lot like Acheron in Greek mythology).
There's also the sense that if the dead person's spirit wants to come back and visit great unpleasantness on you, it's better to team up. Going 50-50 on the haunting, as it were.
So I guess that some Christian ministers don't want to lend credence to quasi-Buddhist mythology. (It kind of reminds me of Blake's "priests in black gowns walking their rounds".)
But it seems to me that, first, on the scale ranging from "explicitly religious expression" to "vaguely understood cultural practice," "hashi watashi" is pretty far over on the cultural side.
Second, at this moment of final farewell, I can see some small value in coming together to transfer a part of the person who has died into the urn that will house their remains. A grief shared, as it were.
Or, if not much value, at least not much harm in this practice.
So I've been giving the green light to the "hashi watashi".
But thanks for asking, guys, I guess.
And, honest, I had nothing to do with the recent spate of deaths...